REEDLEY – A local author’s latest book goes over his unearthing of a family secret that was initially thought to be in the grave.
“Who here has family secrets?”
This is the question David Masumoto, a local author, organic farmer, Fresno Bee columnist and former Reedley College instructor, asked the audience who turned out at Reedley College Nov. 9 to listen to him read from his latest work, “Secret Harvests: A Hidden Story of Separation and Resilience on a Family Farm.”
Masumoto has written 12 books. He is the recipient of the Commonwealth Club Silver medal, the Julia Child Cookbook award, the James Clavell Literacy Award and was a finalist for a James Beard Foundation award. In 2009, his book, “Wisdom of the Last Farmer” was honored by the National Resources Council as best environmental writing and his cookbook, “The Perfect Peach,” was named by USA Today as one of the best summer cookbooks in 2013.
SECRETS AND GHOSTS
Family secrets, ghosts and rebirth were the three themes Masumoto primarily addressed during his talk. For Masumoto, his family secret was an aunt he located after she was long believed to be dead.
Masumoto has a family farm outside of Del Rey where he grows peaches and other organically grown crops. Farming has been a way of life for Masumoto since his grandparents emigrated from Japan to the U.S. in the 1920s.
Masumoto’s parents were born in the U.S. His mother’s sister, Shizuko, contracted meningitis when she was five. She was not treated and, as a result, suffered a developmental disability.
When he learned of this, Masumoto said, initially, he could not understand why his grandparents allowed this to happen. But while researching the book, he realized there are “stories not talked about, but not necessarily bad.” He also came to understand what life was like for emigrants, like his grandparents, who came to this country with, essentially, nothing.
“I did not know what it was like to have meningitis in the 1920s,” Masumoto said. “Why didn’t they get hospital care? One: my grandparents did not speak English. Two: they were considered aliens. Three: they were rural farm workers. Four: they were poor. You don’t go to the hospital to get medical care.”
Life for rural farmworkers, for those who immigrated from another nation, for non-English speakers, was hard. Masumoto repeated a Japanese saying that summed up their existence: “Fall down seven times, get up eight.”
Following Pearl Harbor, Japanese Americans were sent to camps throughout the county. Manzanar, located off Highway 395 between Independence and Lone Pine, was one of the largest relocation camps in California. In 1942, 110,000 Japanese Americans were interned there.
Masumoto’s parents and grandparents were sent to a camp – his grandparents said it was a prison – in Arizona. Shizuko was 19. No one knew what to do with this young woman who was developmentally disabled. She became a ward of California. His grandparents and parents were interned for four years.
After the war, the family returned to the Central Valley and resumed life as farmworkers. No one knew what had become of Shizuko. It was widely believed she had died.
WHERE HAVE YOU BEEN FOR ALL THESE YEARS?
The family continued farming. Masumoto grew up on the farm and eventually went to college. Seventy years after the family lost touch with Shizuko, Masumoto received a phone call that changed everything.
“A funeral home in Fresno that worked with a hospice said my aunt was a client,” said Masumoto. He told them they were wrong; his aunt was dead. No. They confirmed her identity by matching her name to Masumoto’s mother’s name from a 1930’s Census list.
“You need to sit down,” Masumoto said to his mother when he broke the news.
At the time Masumoto learned of Shizuko’s existence, she was in a coma from a stroke. She eventually regained consciousness. When Masumoto first visited her in the convalescent home and the staff learned who he was, they asked, “Where have you been for all these years?”
WARD OF THE STATE
For 70 years, Shizuko lived in institutions as a ward of a state. When Masumoto visited her again, after she was awake, the reunion was not what he expected.
“She kicked me,” said Masumoto. Shizuko was nonverbal. He realized she was asking him to tie her shoe.
Masumoto said Shizuko was reborn when she came out of her coma.
Masumoto realized this was part of Shizuko’s rebirth.
“She was four feet tall and weighed 80 pounds and she was feisty,” he said. Masumoto learned Shizuko loved her morning cup of coffee, which she drank rapidly. But the coffee in the convalescent home was extremely hot. Worried she might burn herself, the staff cooled it with milk. This did not have the desired effect.
“After she drank her coffee, she threw the cup over her shoulder,” Masumoto said. “The staff gave her Styrofoam cups, but she continued to throw them over her shoulder. The staff realized they would have to put up a wall behind her.”
“She continued to toss her cup. Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow. This is how she dictated her future,” said Masumoto.
When Shizuko did actually pass away, at the service, Masumoto asked his family to honor her by tossing their cups over their shoulders. They did so, but tentatively. But the nursing home staff who attended understood.
“They let the cups fly,” he said.